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Man accused of killing college student Mackenzie Lueck gets interpreter in court

Ayoola Ajayi, originally from Nigeria, requested an interpreter for certain hearings

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Ayoola Adisa Ajayi, accused in the June killing of University of Utah student Mackenzie Lueck, appears in 3rd District Court with attorneys Neal Hamilton and M.E. Larson on another case where he is charged with kidnapping and sexually assaulting a woman in 2018, in Salt Lake City on Friday, Dec. 20, 2019.

Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — An interpreter will be provided for the man charged with murdering 23-year-old Utah college student Mackenzie Lueck last year.

Third District Judge Vernice Trease on Wednesday granted Ayoola Adisa Ajayi’s request for an interpreter in “substantive” court proceedings like an upcoming preliminary hearing to determine whether prosecutors have enough evidence for a trial.

Defense attorneys for Ajayi, a U.S. citizen originally from Nigeria, aren’t asking for three pending cases against him to start over, however.

They say he speaks and understands English but has trouble following what’s happening in longer, more complex hearings. He grasps the concepts after his lawyers explain them, but isn’t able to track quick exchanges or those that delve into legal nitty-gritty, defense attorney Neal Hamilton said in Salt Lake City’s 3rd District Court Wednesday.

Hamilton argued Ajayi needs translation into his native language, Yoruban, so he can confer with his attorneys on the spot and suggest questions for them to ask in court.

“This request was made out of a complete abundance of caution,” Hamilton said, noting his client is charged with a capital offense, meaning he could face the death penalty if convicted.

Ajayi faces a charge of aggravated murder after prosecutors say he bound Lueck’s hands with zip ties, bludgeoned her and burned her body in June 2019.

A flyer informing people of Mackenzie Lueck’s disappearance is pictured in Hatch Park in North Salt Lake on Monday, June 24, 2019. According to Salt Lake City police, the 23-year-old University of Utah student was last seen making contact with a person in a vehicle at the park about 3 a.m. on June 17.

A flyer informing people of Mackenzie Lueck disappearance is pictured in Hatch Park in North Salt Lake on Monday, June 24, 2019.

Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

Police said Lueck, a University of Utah student from El Segundo, California, met Ajayi about 3 a.m. on June 17, 2019 at a North Salt Lake park before going to his house in Salt Lake City. Authorities have not said how the two knew each other or why they met there.

Roughly two weeks later, police found Lueck’s charred remains in a shallow grave in Logan Canyon. An autopsy determined she died of blunt force trauma to the left side of her skull.

Ajayi has not yet entered pleas to the aggravated murder charge, plus others of aggravated kidnapping, first-degree felonies; desecration of a human body, a second-degree felony; and obstruction of justice, a third-degree felony.

Marc Mathis, deputy district attorney for Salt Lake County, noted hearings in Ajayi’s cases have been held exclusively in English for more than a year. Before that, police conducted interviews with him in English, and he spoke that language in his job and as a student at Utah State University, Mathis said.

The university has said he began attending classes there on a student visa in 2009.

Mathis questioned whether the court must revisit Ajayi’s earlier decision to waive his right to a speedy trial or a preliminary hearing in a separate sexual assault case Ajayi faces. The victim of the alleged 2018 assault submitted a statement instead of testifying.

But Hamilton said that’s not needed.

“No one’s looking back. We’re not doing anything like that,” he said.

Ajayi, wearing an orange jail uniform, a green face mask and black-rimmed glasses, answered brief questions from the judge during the hearing held via videoconference.

Trease paused the hearing so Ajayi could confer with his attorneys after he responded “no,” when she asked him if he understood everything Wednesday. Hamilton later said his client had trouble understanding “legalese” in the hearing but grasped it with help from his lawyers.

When Trease asked if Ajayi agreed, he replied, “yes.”

The judge noted some languages, especially those based outside of Europe, may not have terms for legal conventions like a jury trial, and interpreting might largely be an issue of explaining concepts. She said she was taking Ajayi’s four defense attorneys at their word that their client only needed an interpreter for certain hearings, pointing to their experience.

In a third criminal case, Ajayi is charged with 19 counts of sexual exploitation of a minor, a second-degree felony, after police reported finding child pornography on devices seized from his home in their investigation into Lueck’s death.

Most hearings in Utah are being held remotely amid the pandemic, but Hamilton said he would like Ajayi, the interpreter and defense attorneys to be allowed to appear together in court at the October preliminary hearing,

The parties are expected to hash out the details when Ajayi returns to court Sept. 16.